Mary Gray on the future of Internet Studies

Mary Gray’s keynote at IR13 lays out an important vision for the future of new media studies:

We have reached a critical moment in internet studies: we need to challenge ourselves and our publics to think about the Internet in the contemporary world in far more nuanced, socially-situated ways. … Doing otherwise simply sets up emerging technologies as the next new “toaster” to study, ever distracting us from the social context that animates the cultural work of any technology, reproducing a habit of finding norms and variations rather than interrogating their production vis-à-vis media.

Complexity means focusing on the context of media use above and beyond the devices in play. We need to challenges ourselves and our audiences to think relationally, dialectically about our relationships with technology.

There’s a lot at stake here, she argues, and calls out big data for claiming to offer unmediated truths about social behaviors. Gray concludes that de-centering new technologies and devices in our research might make us less popular (or even less fundable), but is nonetheless necessary:

Shifting to context will be hard as it will rob us from the novelty that makes us interesting to funders, reporters, and a general public hungry for the story that makes technology the hero or villain and retains the individual’s role as the arbiter of their own destiny in the face of technological change.

In the past few weeks I’ve been thinking and talking a lot about the need to pay close attention to our common sense ideas about technology. Indeed as Gray warns we usually view new technology as the hero or villain; the problem or the solution to our complex social problems. Plenty of scholars are questioning these binaries and creating nuanced studies of technology that center context and power relations. Gray’s speech is a good reminder that this approach is not yet the norm in Internet Studies.