October 21

Building Digital Estates: New Technology for Creating Business, Social and Physical Identities

Much of life is now experienced digitally on just a few ubiquitous devices, via interfaces that enable lightning fast switches between radically different content, and with affordances that make it simple for anyone – individuals, social groups, companies, governments – to aggregate, archive, search, analyze, and publish everything. One device can be used for email and texting, shopping and finances, business and social relationships, work spreadsheets and writing, entertainment TV, news, movies and games, and monitoring personal information about health, exercise, energy, appliances, driving and even home irrigation. The variety of human experiences available digitally will continue to grow as more and more items – from refrigerators to shoes to food to car parts – get their own IP addresses that link them to the so-called “internet of things.”

Presenters: Prof. Fred Turner, Prof. Jeff Hancock and Prof. Byron Reeves.

As we live our lives with our devices, we constantly give off bits of digital information. This residue of our digital lives has been variously known as exhaust, shadows, passports, estates, tattoos, and breadcrumbs. Regardless of terms, however, one thing is clear: the breadth, ubiquity and ease of individualized digitization makes it powerful, perhaps as powerful as any current reality in psychological or social life. And with that power comes the virtual certainty that both opportunity and harm will result from exercising it. Social relationships may be more plentiful but also more shallow. Work productivity may benefit from transparency but at the cost of heightened stress. People can record personal behavior in useful detail, but so can anyone else. Like fire, digitization gives and takes.

Digitization makes it possible to bring together topics usually considered separately, from relationships to work to health to money to politics. At no time in history has it been easier to examine the relationships among these experiences in time domains from seconds to days to decades. Similarly, digitization defies disciplinary boundaries, requiring that the scholarship about it include everything from psychological experimentation to workplace ethnographies to social network analyses to cultural history. At no time in intellectual history has the need to bring multiple academic perspectives to bear on media and technology been as critical.

Our argument is that the experiential breadth of digital life and the range of intellectual approaches needed to study it warrant a new field, one we call individual informatics. Members of such a field could ask about where and how the digitization of an individual’s identity is occurring (and not occurring). They could trace its technical and practical evolution. They could also study the terabytes of data individual lives are now emitting and so make new connections between parts of our lives we may long have thought of as separate. And they could explore the ways in which digitization redistributes political and cultural power, sometimes to individuals, sometimes to institutions, sometimes to both.

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Fred Turner

Fred Turner is an American cultural historian focusing on the history of digital media. He is the author of several books and is perhaps best known for his book From Counterculture to Cyberculture. There he traced the ways in which digital media and the American counterculture have shaped one another. He has written extensively on the intersection of bohemian social processes and new modes of digitized manufacturing. He is currently researching the history of collaborative, distributed modes of labor, from cold war critiques of factory hierarchy to open source software development and the Maker Movement.

Jeff Hancock

Jeff Hancock joined Stanford in 2015 from Cornell University. He is a social psychologist who studies individual and social processes in social media. His studies include research about how digital media affect social and interpersonal dynamics, such as deception and trust, emotional responses, and intimacy and social support. A primary theme in his work is how our personal digital records are transforming the way we communicate with one another, including how we coordinate at work, how we come to trust colleagues, and how we create meaning in organizations.

Byron Reeves

Byron Reeves has worked broadly in media psychology, and has recently been interested in the use of entertainment media in serious contexts, including work. He has published studies about game psychology and work performance, the use of virtual currencies in workplace management, and the application of leadership qualities learned in social games to corporate leadership. He is author, with Leighton Read, of Total Engagement: Using Games and Virtual Worlds to Change How People Work and Businesses Compete (Harvard Business Press). He also works with the Silicon Valley venture community and start up companies to evaluate new business ideas related to media and work.