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Computing as Context: Experiences of Dis/Connection Beyond the Moment of Non/Use

Creative Commons 'BY-SA' version 4.0 license

What does it mean to be “constantly connected” or to work for a “24/7” company? What does it mean to “disconnect” in an era of “always on” connectivity? This dissertation examines some of the textures of American life in an historical moment marked both by the arrival of ubiquitous computing and the development of a broad-based conversation about the value and merits of ‘disconnection.’ Taking a multi- sited ethnographic approach, I trace “connection” and “disconnection” as they manifest in discourse, practice, and lived experience across multiple scenes of American life – the suburban household, the contemporary workplace, disconnection retreats, and the wilderness of the Pacific Crest Trail.

One of the central empirical findings of this dissertation is that connectivity was not constant for the participants in this research. Rather, observed patterns of technology use were punctuated and variegated. Yet, many of these same participants also often described their lives as “constantly connected” and expressed desires to disconnect. The dissertation thus argues for the importance of separating analytically the diffuse and pervasive experiences of computing from moments of ‘interaction’ and ‘use’ that have traditionally been the focus Informatics and related fields.

By attending to computing as the context for social life and human action, I argue that we can better attend to the ways that people situationally arrange computing artifacts and leverage constraints to shape their lived experience. This perspective also suggests a new understanding of disconnection as something less about unplugging from technological objects, and more about a context shift, and social reconfiguration. When people disconnect, they are also altering possibilities for social interaction, and concomitant expectations and obligations. That is, disconnection appears as a proxy for short-circuiting habits and patterns of social life that exceed moments of device interaction and tool use.

More broadly, this research draws attention to the ways that social values are produced through computing use and adoption, rather than perfectly embedded within technological artifacts through the intentions of the designer, and suggests that there are significant limits to the possibilities of design to intervene in contemporary scenes of busyness and overwhelm.

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